Why Watchmen should not be your 1st Graphic Novel/Comic Experience


Watchmen #1, 1986

"You've got to read Watchmen if you haven't read any comic before." 

I've heard this suggestion many times. Often times in the past myself, I'd refer Watchmen to someone that is new to comics or wants to get into comics but doesn't know where to start, which often happens if someone isn't a superhero fan. They tend to get lost in the big two's (DC & Marvel) playground of superheroes or it drowns out other books that may interest them [There are titles at the end of this article for those that are both interested in superheroes and other genres like zombies].

I'm not against Alan Moore's Watchmen, quite the opposite, it's one of my favorite stories of all-time. And I'm a big superhero fan, of Image, DC, Marvel, etc., But the error in hearing the statement above comes from the standpoint of taking things for granted as a fan of comics in general. I'll take some key points and tell you why ...

Are you a fan of comics to begin with? This might sound like some kind of twisted oxymoron, but Watchmen is a statement of and about comic books. Their history, what inspired the onset of superheroes, their incredibly varied lineage. The story at its core is built around those things and if you're not already a fan of comics it'll all go right over your head. Not because you're an idiot, but because it's a very important story about comics, for comic enthusiasts. Which is a big deal. And clever with it's multi-layered books-within-a-book. More on that later.

Are you aware of the impacts that society has had on comics and vice versa? If not, you'll likely see the fights, murders, etc., as typically comic book stuff, and won't really have a grasp of the reasoning that went into the events that unfold. For a series that was written at a quick monthly pace when it originally came out in comic magazine format, Watchmen is a very calculated story that takes observations of how comics work, and it's history and combines them while dramatically setting up the villain to literally do what no world-threatening conqueror in real life has ever been successful at; uniting the world. A feat that not even Alexander had been able to accomplish with the many kingdoms that came into his rule. The story is both outlandish and very real all at once.

Are you willing to make a leap of imagination that may be drastically different than what you read or watch typically? If you're a fan of TV, and are accustomed to series like Law & Order, or some other relatively realistic storyline, Watchmen will definitely require a leap of faith as far as imagination goes. But if you're willing to jump in with imagination, then it's more in-line with atmosphere akin to the X-Files. If you like horror writing, Watchmen will be more understandable, especially if you're a fan of H.P. Lovecraft or Stephen King. Then things will begin to make sense more easily. Because that's the type of person Moore is; interested in telling stories that question why comics can't (at least before the 80's) be considered literature? Why can't the stories be relevant? Why can't they teach you something about yourself, or observe society and it's impacts? And then throw in creative twists that do require that leap of faith, that do make you think, and want to know more in some way, about either the subject matter or the characters that make those decisions. Or perhaps more importantly, examine what is happening in life or explore what will happen if things go down the way they can be explored in a story. Watchmen calls on many of these sentiments. Asking things like "What would be the impact to citizens if superheroes really did exist?" or "What would happen to superheroes as individuals once they age?" This also happens to apply to the ageless in this story as well, having consequences of it's own. 

How or why is this story so popular when you've read pieces of it, but don't understand the attraction? Well, that's just the thing; Watchmen is, in a way, an examination of how the comic medium storytelling works. For instance, there is a comic book "Tales of the Black Freighter" that a kid is reading at a corner magazine rack that emulates what is going on throughout the story, but brought to an internal comic book. Which is what comic books do. They look around and ask questions, then explore concepts in the pages, sometimes to an extreme extent. So a simple glance won't do the trick with this book. Then again, the story may not be for everyone. I talked with a person that was a reader once, of novels typically, but comics as well, and he simply didn't think the story was all that. Perhaps the things I'm mentioning here went over his head, or he didn't know much about the collective history that the book hints at. Maybe the ending was just garbage to him. Who knows, but perhaps the story simply wasn't his kind of thing.
Main characters of Watchmen (left to right): Ozymandias, (2nd) Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhattan, The Comedian (kneeling), (2nd) Nite Owl, and Rorschach.

Who are these characters and how are they relevant? Moore actually wanted to use DC main characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, etc., but the consequences would affect DC universe continuity, so they asked him to change it and he chose to use Charlton Comics (bought by DC years before and basically sitting unused) characters or original characters and bring life to the same story. Personally, I think that with the creation of Elseworlds and Vertigo, they should have let Moore use the top characters like Frank Miller did, but just place it in it's own time frame, but hey, Moore brought life to characters that would have perhaps never been seen again and now no one will forget them. At another book within a book incident, there is the running narrative of Rorschach's journal that gives the experience of a human with willpower trying to bring light to the things that others are getting away with, like the hero serial killer that he's tracking down that is murdering former vigilantes (which were once endorsed in the timeline, but now illegal, unless you work for the government). Sometimes the influence of what these characters are, like Dr. Manhattan being a super-being, Ozymandius being born into wealth and walking away from it all to rebuild his own empire, is easy to see when thinking of how the story may have gone if the heavy hitters of the DCU had been used in their place.

So when would you want to read Watchmen? There are many "the history of comics" documentaries out there now. Quite a few of them cover the 1930's through to present time and watching those will basically prep you for reading Watchmen with an appreciation for the effort that went into it and be able to enjoy the story for what it is. Because by then, you'll have a greater understanding of why this book means what it means to so many comic fans. Why it has been one of the few comics originally blasting it's way outside of just the comic/graphic novel scene and making it's way to things like the Comics Journal list and Times bestseller list, among other great achievements. The book deserves it's praise, as do many great comics like The Dark Knight Returns (maybe we'll take a look at that one in the future). But you'll have to just try various titles to see if they're what you like.

What if it's just not up your alley? Then what else should you check out? The main thing to take from it all is that if you like dramatic storytelling with creative twists, you'll likely love the story and how deep it gets into the characters in such a small amount of material. But here are some other recommendations below ... 

If you like superheroes: Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns (if you like Batman as much as I do). Mark Millar writes off-beat stories that are just plain fun to read, with great takes on the characters he develops such as in Kick-Ass and Wanted. Lady Mechanika is a series by Joe Benitez that follows an android lady through steampunk adventures. Spawn, by Todd McFarlane, is a darker comic that follows a former assassin through his tribulations as a Hellspawn warrior that doesn't entirely agree to being a pawn of hell. Savage Dragon, [who's creator Erik Larsen is currently working with McFarlane on Spawn] is written in such a way that it inspired Robert Kirkman's "anything can happen" style in The Walking Dead and should be checked out for it's adventurous, exploratory storyline. Then there are of course the Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman, Aquaman, Cyborg, Green Lantern, Red Hood, The Flash, Teen Titans books put out every month by DC. And on the Marvel side (because I'm a fan of both) there's Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Black Panther, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and so on. I'm very partial to superheroes because I feel that they are a part of American mythology and I love seeing their influence on society and how they intrigue and enlighten people. 

If you don't like superheroes:  If you want something that's more at a novel pace, another Moore title is "From Hell." His take on Jack the Ripper, and a very interesting one at that. V for Vendetta is what I'd personally recommend as a good-length story by Moore that will keep you turning pages. From other authors, Frank Miller's 300 is a great story if you like history with twisted takes on age-old characters. Neil Gaiman's Sandman series is very interesting if you like material that is more dream-like or fantastical with a poetically dark feel. Gaiman also has a knack for making stories that you just get attached to the magic of, like Stardust, or Coraline, and any of the various one-shots he's done for several comic titles. Joe Hill's (Stephen King's son) Locke & Key series is fantastic if you want something that's more along the lines of people caught up in rough situations with some spiritual spooky coolness thrown in there. Mark Millar's Chrononauts is what would happen if you and a friend were smart enough to create your own time suits, and Kingsmen is a story about becoming a student of the deadly arts. Strangers in Paradise is a long-running series by Terry Moore, the artist of the first several books of The Walking Dead. Speaking of which, Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead is a really great series. I've read issues 1-96 and personally, I've got to say the comic series is far more interesting, Rick is much meaner, things are even more grittier and ruthless, and Kirkman's writing is just fantastic as always. Top Cow has some books like Think Tank, written by Matt Hawkins, which explores concepts of science fiction that actually aren't too far out there at all and based on developing technology. Aspen comics has Charismagic, by Vince Hernandez, that is more about supernatural magic and fantasy than it is superheroes. Both Top Cow and Aspen have many other books available as well. Surrogates is also a great book that explores the concept of what most technology is usually trying to do for us: make our lives easier. Only in this story, people get into the machines that they then activate and control their surrogates from that do their laboring work for them. Then some start getting destroyed and detectives are set in motion for the killer... There are just too many good books to list in one sitting. You'll have to dive in at some point on one of these titles!

That should be more than enough to launch your imagination to the moon. Hope you enjoy some of these titles and let me know what strikes you in a particular way and why, so I can recommend that in the future to others. Enjoy!


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